The Heavy Load of Tradition (Day Eight)

This is day eight of the ninety-day journey through the New Testament. Today’s reading is from Matthew 22 through Matthew 24.

In Matthew 23, Jesus directs a warning to his disciples concerning the Pharisees. Jesus exposes seven critical weaknesses of the Pharisees, and he does so in very, very harsh terms.

The “seven woes” passage, though, has greater implications for us than we might think. It speaks to the respect given to traditions by people of faith. In this chapter, it is the Pharisees who get the criticism.

So, after successfully evading every attack they’ve given Jesus, he then exposes their tactics to his disciples, and tells them to stay away.

To understand these warnings, though, let’s fill in the gaps a little.

The Pharisees were a popular group of people in Jerusalem. In the most simplest terms, they wanted a return to the purest form of temple worship that was diluted around 150 BC, when a group of priests, known as the Hasmonean dynasty, emerged. These priests were allowed immense political and religious authority. The Pharisees, though, did not believe this was authorized under the Mosaic law, and wanted nothing to do with this innovation.

They then emerged as a populist group, and loved by the common Jewish person in Jerusalem, and in the 150 years prior to the context of Matthew 23, they had grown in status and in admiration and in power, until their views were found to be accurate under Roman oppression.

Nobody wanted the Romans in Jerusalem. And the Pharisees found a lot of support for their teaching. God would bless Jerusalem again, if they would return to the Mosaic law … and, of course, if Jerusalem would listen to how the Pharisees interpreted that law.

But their teaching was interesting. Believing that God had given Moses an additional oral tradition to the law, they felt they had a degree of authority others did not have, and then enforced such traditions on others.

The Sadducees, another political and religious group which emerged when the Pharisees emerged, rejected the idea that Moses was given another revelation. Of the two groups, the Sadducees were the obvious conservative group, opting for an exact, literal translation. The Pharisees could shape the Mosaic text as they wished, because of their belief in another, oral revelation.

It’s no surprise, then, which group was most popular. I mean, if the Sadducees believed in a literal translation of something like “an eye for an eye,” no common criminal would ever want to really lose an eye. The Pharisees would argue for an acceptable fine. And you could keep your eye.

But this is what Jesus seems to be addressing in Matthew 23. The Pharisees had a populist message. But it, for the most part, became burdensome. They had a pen that slashed its way through the scripture when they needed to be proven right.

So a populist group, such as the Pharisees, were obviously threatened by Jesus, who had an obvious populist message.

Think about it this way. They are popular, loved, respected, and admired by the common people. Until Jesus, anyway. Because Jesus spoke to the very same crowd. Where the Pharisees taught that devotion and piety came through a rigid lifestyle, Jesus taught that devotion and piety came from grace.

It’s no wonder they couldn’t stand Jesus.

Matthew 23 is a stand alone chapter, though. It’s included in Matthew, I think, because Jesus is releasing a passion here through these woes. And I think it can best be summed up like this, which is Matthew 23:1-7 from The Message:

Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.

“Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’

I really don’t think much more needs to be said.


Thanks for joining me in this ninety-day journey! You can read all the posts here.

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